Written by: Muhammad Sazali Abdul Aziz
Photo Credit: KEVIN LIM
Over a dozen trophies are displayed neatly at the top of a cabinet in footballer Justin Hui’s room in his Punggol flat.
One, however, sits proudly on his desk. It is the inaugural The Straits Times Young Athlete of the Year award which he won last Tuesday.
The gong capped a great month for the midfielder, who plays for Hougang United in the S-League.
He celebrated his 20th birthday on Feb 17 and, two weeks later, received a first call-up to the national Under-23 team.
“My coach (at Hougang United) Philippe Aw casually told me about it in Indonesia when we went there for a pre-season friendly,” he recalled with a smile. “I was really, really happy because I’ve been wanting to break into the U-21 or the U-23 squad for a while.”
Hui is part of the national U-23 squad who will face an Indonesian U-23 side at the National Stadium on Wednesday.
National U-23 coach Fandi Ahmad sees potential in the 1.7m, 60kg Hui, but says he needs to put in a lot of hard work to become an all-round footballer.
“He is technically good, comfortable with the ball and is an intelligent footballer. I would say he is a good talent,” said the former national striker.
“But he lacks physicality and aggression in his play. He needs to assert himself more on the pitch.”
Hui’s call-up is just reward for his steady rise from a kid, who kicked his first football at eight after watching Steven Gerrard play in Liverpool’s 0-1 loss to Brazilian side Sao Paulo in the 2005 Club World Championship final, to scoring the winner in his first start for Hougang in a 1-0 S-League victory over the Young Lions last October.
Five months earlier, Hui had captained Meridian Junior College (MJC) to their fourth straight Schools National A Division boys’ football title by scoring a hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Victoria Junior College in the final, a feat which earned him the ST award.
Hui was involved in three of MJC’s four triumphs because he was retained for a year after choosing to miss his promotional examinations during his first year in 2015.
He did that to represent the national U-18s at the 2016 Asian Football Confederation U-19 Championship qualifiers in Thailand.
His decision might raise some eyebrows, especially since his mother, Lillian, is a teacher. But he has an ardent supporter in his football-mad father, Patrick.
“His mother isn’t the sporty type. Being a teacher, naturally she would expect her son to be more academically inclined. But I’m not the type who will demand that my son joins the paper chase,” the 58-year-old stay-at-home father said of his wife, who is also 58.
The couple have another 17-year-old daughter who plays badminton for her school.
His mother had told ST when Hui was named August’s Young Star of the Month presented by 100Plus: “Justin is a good student and a fast learner. I didn’t think he would take football so seriously.
“I wanted to support his passion but honestly, it’s not practical to play football in Singapore but he’s very persistent. At a tender age, he knows what he wants and that was what convinced me.”
Hui realises there’s much room for improvement in his game.
On top of daily training sessions with Hougang in the evenings, he does weight sessions on his own in the mornings to build up his upper body strength. A tub of whey protein that sits in the corner of his bedroom is evidence of his endeavour.
“With my personality, I enjoy a professional footballer’s life,” he said. “When I’m training, I work hard and I enjoy it.
“It’s nice to do extra training on my own, rest and eat properly, rather than report to school very early in the morning and then head to training already tired.”
Hui might have to juggle football and studies for a while yet – he is waiting for a deferment from National Service to take up a diploma course in Temasek Polytechnic.
Describing his son as “bright” and “a fast learner” on and off the pitch, Patrick believes Hui can eke out a career in football, and also thrive after his playing days are over.
And if his mother needs any further convincing, she just has to take a look at the trophies in her son’s room.
“These breakthroughs and milestones help her understand that this is his passion, and that he really wants to achieve something,” said Patrick.
“And in some ways, I think he has already got his mother’s approval.”